Water scarcity is threatening human civilization like never before. It is time for us to look to nature for solutions to overcome our water challenges and secure a more sustainable future for the planet.
Freshwater is the most important resource for human survival and development. It is also a condition for all life on our planet. Yet, while nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface is water-covered, only 2.5% is readily available freshwater.
Due to our unsustainable and linear management of water, freshwater scarcity has been increasingly perceived as a global systemic risk over the last few decades. Today, over a quarter of the world’s population currently lives in areas with potentially severe water scarcity.
And this is not set to get better. Driven by population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns, global demand for water is expected to grow by more than 50% by 2050. In addition, climate change is increasing extremes in water availability with more droughts, flooding and soil erosion. Along with the decline in water quality, these impacts will be further exacerbated urban water crises, food insecurity, vulnerability to natural disasters, political instability, and rising tensions – all of which will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable.
Securing water resources
But there is hope in the horizon. Nature has a vital role to play in securing water resources. Its ecological processes maintain the water cycle, regulate water flow, ensure water quality, and reduce the impacts from natural disasters. Particularly important are wetlands, where our water directly comes from, but also forest, mountain, and grassland ecosystems. Forest protected areas supply drinking water for one-third of the world’s largest cities, and over half the mountains in the world have an essential or supportive role in providing water to downstream communities.
Despite the necessary role that nature plays in water services, a large portion of the world’s important areas for water security is unprotected, degraded, or converted. Today, nearly half of all drinking water sources are significantly degraded due to human activities.
We must face the fact that the water crisis is deeply intertwined with the nature and climate crises. This triggers vicious feedback loops that compromise our ability to achieve sustainable development. Fortunately, we have solutions in sight that are proven and cost-effective. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are defined as actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems. NbS can enhance water availability and quality while simultaneously reducing waterrelated risks and generating additional social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Investing in nature
For a growing number of governments and companies, investing in water includes natural infrastructure like forests and wetlands. By improving the conditions of water sources, they complement the grey infrastructure to enable more circular and resilient water systems.
Governments around the world have already made bold commitments to protect, restore, and sustainably manage ecosystems – notably through their National Development Plans, their second Nationally Determined Contributions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Also, the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework provides the opportunity to raise our ambition on nature to safeguard its vital services to humanity.
However, the power of nature-based solutions is still largely untapped. There is an urgent need to accelerate the uptake of NbS to deliver on water security and other development goals. The complex nature of the water crisis surely requires a lot more beyond governments committing to implement NbS at country levels. It calls for an all-of-society approach powered by key transformations, starting with an improved collaboration across sectors and countries, and leveraging financing from private and public sources.
Creating an enabling regulatory and legal environment at all levels of governance will be crucial to make water systems fairer and more sustainable. Besides water scarcity, conflicts over access to and use of water resources are directly linked to water governance and land tenure rights. Thus, improved collaboration across sub-national and national entities will be needed to achieve a better sharing of the limited freshwater resources. It is also crucial to emphasize that NbS should only be implemented with the full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), and with the free, prior and informed consent.
Finally, developing and compiling knowledge that documents the effectiveness of natural infrastructure for water is paramount to mainstream NbS. When managing water, engineers and scientists tend to work in silos, excluding social sciences and crucial stakeholders such as IPLCs, who are primarily affected by the changes in water systems. Traditional and place-based knowledge should be considered a significant asset and incorporated into assessments. Considering that IPLCs have long recognized the value of nature for water, NbS can act as a catalyst to include their voices in decision making. It is time for a paradigm shift in the way we consume and manage water – and nature will be our best ally in the movement towards a resilient and inclusive future.